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Syria at a 'tipping point'

As diplomats debate a Yemen vs. Libya path for Syria’s revolt, civilians grow fearful of a new scourge: sectarian violence.

Syria kofi annan un houla 2012 5 30Enlarge
UN-Arab League peace envoy Kofi Annan speaks to the press in Damascus on May 29, 2012, following his meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In his meeting with Assad, Annan conveyed 'the grave concern of the international community about the violence in Syria, including in particular the recent events in Houla,' his office said. (Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images)

DAMASCUS, Syria and BEIRUT, Lebanon — With bodies literally piling up at the feet of his ceasefire observers, Kofi Annan, the UN-Arab League envoy, left Damascus Wednesday after his latest meeting with President Bashar al-Assad.

As he left, he warned that Syria faces a “tipping point.”

Policymakers and political analysts are debating two potential paths for the uprising in Syria, based on the outcomes of two very different Arab revolutions: The NATO-led intervention that toppled Libya’s former dictator, or the orderly, by comparison, transfer of power that ousted Yemen’s president but left much of his family in power.

“The big question today is to implement the Libyan or Yemeni scenario in Syria,” the head of a Damascus-based think tank told GlobalPost, requesting anonymity to speak without fear of reprisal.

“The United Sates will discuss the Yemeni scenario with Russia to implement it in Syria, but if Russia refused then the Libyan scenario is coming for sure.”

More from GlobalPost inside Syria: Regime targets doctors and wounded patients

US President Barack Obama is already actively seeking Russian cooperation on removing Assad from power while retaining the structure of the state, according to a report last week in the New York Times.

Yemen’s Vice President Abdu Rabbu Mansour al-Hadi ascended to the top job backed by both the opposition and by powerful remnants of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime — including his own family members still running the security forces.

But analysts say Syria’s vice president, Farouk al-Sharaa, who has been all but absent from the public sphere since the start of the uprising in March last year, has neither the trust of the opposition nor the support of the regime, making any such transition of power highly problematic.

“Sharaa is very weak and has no power and popularity among either pro or anti-regime Syrians. The army and senior security officers don’t respect Sharaa who spends his days between his house and his office doing nothing,” the analyst said.

“He doesn’t even hold meetings with visitors to Syria or key local figures. So the Yemeni scenario is going to fail, even if Russia supports it.”

Amid the international outcry that followed the killing by Assad’s security forces of at least 108 people in the villages of Houla, in northwest Syria, on March 25, Russia repeated its refusal on Wednesday to sanction any international action that could lead to military force used against Assad’s regime.

The continued diplomatic deadlock came as details emerged that the massacre, one of the worst in the 14-month uprising, was sectarian in nature, leading to fears that the conflict was shifting from an uprising to a civil war.

More from GlobalPost inside Syria: Syrians losing faith in UN

Moreover, the conflict appears to have sharper consequences than previously believed: according to a report co-authored by the Syrian Network for Human Rights and the Damascus Centre for Human Rights Studies, more than 14,000 people have died, well above the widely quoted but outdated UN estimate of 9,000.

UN monitors in Syria, whose accounts were corroborated with other sources, found that most of the 108 Syrians killed in Houla appeared to have been shot at close range in “summary executions of civilians, women and children.”

Fewer than 20 people were killed by government artillery fire, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights spokesman Rupert Colville told a news conference in Geneva on Wednesday.

Speaking to GlobalPost from Houla, a resident said that the attacks began after security forces had opened fire on a large anti-regime protest on Friday afternoon.

In response, local rebel fighters from the Free Syrian Army, which he said had been largely in control of Houla for the past three months, stormed military checkpoints set up around the villages and launched a coordinated attack against a nearby army base, using rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns.

That triggered the army to launch a barrage of rocket fire on the four villages, using similar weapons as the assault that devastated Homs’ Baba Amr district. Previously, the resident said, Houla had suffered bombardment, but from tank fire, not the heavier rockets and mortars used in the May 25 attack.

Houla is a collection of four Sunni-majority villages some 20 kilometers northwest of Homs. It is surrounded by villages that are home to Allawites, a sect of Shiite Islam, to which the Assad family and a majority of the regime’s ruling elites belong.

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An opposition activist in Houla told GlobalPost that as shelling intensified around 6:30 p.m., he saw what he believed were Allawite militiamen, known as shabiha, arriving on five buses protected by soldiers.

“The bombing began as usual and there were numerous injuries. But this Friday the bombing was more severe. During the shelling, buses with shabiha arrived at the village of Houla from the surrounding villages of Fulla, Al Qabu and Al Shinnea.”

The activist did not witness the killings himself, but said that when members of the Free Syrian Army returned to Houla after battling the military late on Friday night, he and other activists entered the homes that had been raided.

“We entered the houses after the departure of the shabiha and found families had been slaughtered with knives. Almost all the women and children had been stabbed and the men had been shot,” he said.

“Frankly, what I felt when we were dragging the bodies of women and children out of their homes is only that I want to take revenge against the other sect which has committed this massacre. Unfortunately this is how the regime has made us think.”

Thirty-four women and 49 children, by the UN’s count, were stabbed or shot dead at point blank range.

Most of those killed belonged to the large Abdel Razzak family. Local activists provided Human Rights Watch with a list of 62 dead members from the family. According to survivors, the Abdel Razzaks own the land and farms next to the national water company and the water dam of Taldou, one of the villages of Houla, and lived in eight or nine houses next to each other, two families to a house.

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“[The killers] were wearing military clothes. I couldn’t see their faces. I thought they wanted to search the house,” an elderly woman from the Abdel Razzak family told Human Rights Watch.

“After three minutes, I heard all my family members screaming and yelling. The children, all aged between 10 and 14, were crying. I heard several gunshots. I was so terrified I couldn’t stand on my legs. I heard the soldiers leaving. I looked outside the room and saw all of my family members shot. They were shot in their bodies and their head.”

Syria's state news agency SANA said Assad told Annan today that “terrorist groups” had stepped up their actions recently, and it was up to the states that arm, finance and harbor them to abide by Annan's plan to end the violence engulfing Syria.

Civilians are cynical about the negotiations.

“Syrians don’t want words on paper and meetings in offices or five-star hotels. Syrians want practical solutions to stop the killing and massacres,” Osama, a 30-year-old civil engineer who said he supports neither the opposition nor regime, told GlobalPost in Damascus.

“The Annan plan and 300 UN monitors couldn’t prevent massacres in Houla, Hama and Homs in the last three days. Syrians began to believe there is no hope from the UN and the international community. If the people of Houla had weapons then Assad’s Allawite Shabiha could not have slaughtered those women and children in cold blood.”

A correspondent in Damascus, Syria contributed to this report. Hugh Macleod contributed from Beirut, Lebanon.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/middle-east/syria/120530/syria-massacre-sectarian-violence-houla-kofi-annan